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by Cary O'Dell
At the risk of dating myself, yes, kids, there was a time—oh, not so long ago!—when after watching the newest episode of your favorite TV show you had to wait a week (yep, a whole week!) before you got to see the next one. And in those endless seven days between episodes all you had to quench your thirst for more were, maybe, a couple of previews at the end of the show you just watched and the warm and fuzzy memories you currently had.
Think it couldn’t get worse? Well, there was also a time when, should you have missed that just-aired episode (YES, this really happened back in the day!), you had to wait almost a year before it aired again via something called a “rerun.”
Yes, children, the world was once a very cruel place.
Thankfully, though, this set-up was the norm only for a short time as, not long after it began, TV producers and studios discovered the power of the repeat and then local stations created (discovered?) something called “off-network syndication,” a phenomena where repeats of your TV favorites aired five-days a week, in “stripped” timeslots—same “Bat Time,” same “Bat Channel”—every day! Of course, you had to be home and at the set at that “Bat Time/Channel” everyday, but I digress…
Oh, yes, those were the days!
Because of syndication, a lot of us were lucky enough to grow up with regular afterschool airings of “Brady Bunch,” “Star Trek,” and all the “Lucys” we could handle. Yep, we considered ourselves quite fortunate to have been born during such a remarkable time.
But then, for better or worse, things began to change. Home video (first on VHS tapes and then on DVD) made the purchase and re-watching of MANY episodes of our favorite series (from “Dobie” to “Donna Reed”) something completely within our grasp. Starting in the ‘80s, you could buy four episodes of “Flying Nun” or maybe even an entire season of your favorite show or, if you really had the money, the WHOLE FREAKING SERIES!
We thought life was good. So good!
Then, Netflix came along and around that same time the internet exploded. And, of course, the internet changed everything in the whole wide world.
And as for TV watching now? Well, you know the score.
Today, via a staggering number of “streaming” services (often with weird and cutesy names ranging from Hulu to Crackle), each and every episode of a gigantic plethora of vintage TV series--dating from the early 1950s up to, well, probably last night—is now available for immediate and, if you wish, all-in-one-sitting viewing.
Meanwhile, some of these aforementioned services—like Netflix—have further upped their game. They have gone from simple content PROVIDERS to content CREATORS. Netflix and Amazon, among others, now have their own home-grown series (like the Emmy-winning “Ozark” or the soon-to-return “Bosch”).
Among the qualities that make these made-for-streaming series different from their network and basic cable brethren (besides, of course, the adult language and the occasional nudity that these series can get away with) is how they come to us, as viewers. There’s no week-long wait here. No, most original streaming series see all their episodes made available all at once. Every episode, upfront. A case in point, this past weekend, I watched Netflix’s five-part “Halston” mini-series in basically a day and a half. I watched all eight episodes of Peacock’s new “Girls5eva” in about a week.
It’s interesting now to note that, back when television first became a truly MASS medium (c. the very late 1940s and early 1950s), most of the programs on it, both network and local, were only 15 minutes in length. One of the reasons that show times were so short was that TV execs at that time thought that viewers would never sit still for a full 30 minutes or—egads!—a full hour just to WATCH TELEVISION. Well, I guess we proved them wrong on that one, haven’t we?
DVD’s, Netflix, and all the new-fangled others, have, quite simply, changed the way we watch television. There was a time when the word “binge” was used only to describe the late-night, elicit eating of entire boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mints. But, not now; now we binge programs.
In a way, binge watching is a great compliment: a program is so good you want more…and you want it NOW.
Sadly, though, not every show that is streaming--that is available to be “binged”--should be binged. In fact, some of the small screen’s greatest achievements seem to falter, or even fail, when watched in these sort of marathon viewing sessions.
Shows like “Get Smart” and many from the Paul Henning oeuvre, such as “Green Acres” and “Beverly Hillbillies,” seem to fall short when viewed one right after the other. These series, set within their own separate, Dada-esque universes, gain their power when they are off-set by, contrasted by, the “reality” of other “regular” television and even real life. But when they are watched en masse, the world of Hooterville or the ins and outs of CONTROL and KAOS become “the norm,” causing many of the show’s gags to, then, flatline.
Even some of TV’s greatest creations don’t lend themselves well to being viewed in endurance-type watch parities. “All in the Family” becomes incredibly strident (not to mention really loud) when episodes are watched one after the other. Even, to my mind, the masterpiece that is “The Honeymooners” starts to feel really redundant when binged.
Consider: In its initial airing, “All in the Family” was often followed by the far softer styles of other shows like “Mary Tyler Moore” and the original “Bob Newhart Show,” allowing audiences a little breathing room after “Family’s” sharp humor and political views. (Audiences also, of course, originally, had a full week to process Archie Bunker’s bite before going back for more.) It’s a pause that the binge does not make possible.
Netflix and others new-comers to the TV game know that their shows will be watched in quick succession and produce them and release them to meet that consumer desire. The only program that they seem willing to pace out in a one-a-week schedule is the “Great British Bake Off,” everything else they offer in larger groups; their recent reality show, the 25-installment “The Circle,” saw its episodes dropped in weekly groups of five.
And that sort or release schedule is all well and good: give the people what they want. But, sadly, shows that don’t binge well—like aforementioned “Family” or “Honeymooners”—are, today, too often being denigrated, recast as unsuccessful shows because they don’t hold up to an all-in, bender-style viewing process.
But they shouldn’t be devalued. These shows were not produced to be marathon-ed; you are experiencing them in a way that they were not intended, the way a big screen sci-fi spectacle loses its luster when watched on your phone, the way a great painting loses its power when reproduced in black and white.
Much like the food products we consume come with warnings, “Best if used by…,” I sometimes think that some of our great TV achievements should also come with a disclaimer of sorts: “WARNING: Best if not binged.”
Because, like the aforementioned box of Girl Scout cookies, not all things are meant for being devoured all at once. Sometimes things are meant to be taken slow, drawn out, and even savored.
[My thanks to my friend, Mike Heintz, for begetting the conversation that resulted in this essay.]
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